By L.L. Madrid
At the audiologist office, Warren Nettlebaum stuffs his pockets with complimentary Werther’s as his daughter fills out a tidy stack of forms. He wishes he didn’t need the help, but his once elegant cursive vanished years ago leaving behind a weaving of serrated lines. Now his trembling fingers battle to strip the gold foil from a caramel confection. Sighing, he manages to slide the piece into his mouth. Eyes closed, he focuses on the melt of flavor. Candy is one of the few joys remaining in his life, and everyone nags him to cut out sugar.
The doctor is not a doctor. The Hearing Instrument Specialist wears a lab coat and introduces herself as “Mickey.” She is young and eager; Warren wonders how time will warp her.
“Mickey? Like the mouse?” he asks. His daughter’s eyes roll behind him. Once, Joyce believed he was the funniest, smartest man in the world and could fix anything. When did she abandon that myth? Probably some forty years prior when she was a teenager.
“It’s Mikaela, but Mickey is easier.” Patient, bubbly, and enunciating in a way that makes her lips pop and stretch, she reminds Warren of a kindergarten teacher.
In the exam room, the demo hearing aids rub against the backs of Warren’s ears. He stiffens as Mickey’s gloved fingers graze his wiry sprouts of hair. “Tell me when I sound clearer. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…”
I can’t decide if I like her, says a woman in a husky rasp ala Katharine Hepburn, wry but sweet. Warren spins around looking for the source of the voice he hasn’t heard in twenty-two years.
“Mr. Nettlebaum? Did you get a burst of feedback?” Mickey’s hands poise over the keyboard, ready to make adjustments.
“It’s Mickey, like the mouse, remember? Let’s try that again. Monday, Tuesday…”
Don’t answer me here. Joycie’ll have a conniption.
Warren wonders if he is about to die. “How?”
“I’m using the computer to program the Hear Trues to your specifications. They’re wireless like the internet.”
Be patient, love.
“Let’s try this pair. The receiver goes in the canal as opposed to over the ear. It might be more comfortable.” She removes the curves of plastic and inserts a new set.
“Carolyn?” he asks. There is no reply from his long-departed wife.
“Still Mickey.” The specialist winks.
“I want the other ones. These are no good.”
“Aha, a man that knows what he likes! Let’s do a trial. Come in next week, and we’ll take it from there.”
On the ride back, Joyce peppers Warren with questions about his diet and bathroom habits. He watches out the window, not bothering to answer. Carolyn’s velvet voice returns, She was always a-know-it-all, our Joycie. Do you think she’s happy?
Warren hasn’t considered Joyce’s happiness in years. After his license was revoked, she started ferrying him to appointments, pecking at him like a mother hen. Not wanting to disappoint his wife, he asks, “Are you happy?” His voice is gruffer than he means.
“I’m happy that you’re finally doing something about your hearing.”
“No. I mean with life. You got maybe twenty years until you’ll be in my spot.”
Joyce tilts her head toward Warren, her middle-aged face showing the faintest glimpse of what she looked like as a little girl; vulnerable and curious. She checks her mirrors, and signals before switching into the turn lane.
Carolyn sighs one of those deep and throaty cigarette exhalations that Warren finds irresistibly sexy. I’ve missed a lot.
Warren nods, wondering if she can see him. He’ll ask that and a million other questions when they’re alone. “I love you. I never stopped,” he says, unable to hold it in for another second.
“Oh, Dad. Don’t act like you’re dying. It’s just hearing aids. You’ve got plenty of time.”
Inside the Scenic Senior Apartment studio, the couple slips into their first conversation in two decades. Carolyn claims that Warren is just as handsome as ever; she was always the kindest liar. Warren does his best to recap the past twenty years. He ticks off marriages, divorces, deaths, and gossip about how a former neighbor who complained about weeds in the Nettlebaum’s lawn went to prison for corporate fraud. Carolyn lets out a husky chuckle, a sound he’s never forgotten. Hearing her laugh is like tasting his grandmother’s strawberry-rhubarb pie: warm and bursting with sugared nostalgia. He hasn’t felt this content or hopeful since he’d asked Carolyn for her hand and she’d said yes.
A week of laughter-filled late nights later, Warren strolls into the audiologist office and ignores the candies. “These are the ones. I’ll pay in full,” he tells Mickey as she leads him and Joyce to the exam room.
“You aren’t having difficulty understanding any words or frequencies?”
“Not at all.”
“That’s wonderful, Mr. Nettlebaum. We’ll download the program as-is into your new pair.”
“What? No. These are perfect.”
“Don’t be silly. Those are demos. The new ones are the same except molded specifically for you.” Mickey’s blue-gloved hand moves to Warren’s ear. He jerks away and slaps her arm, the sound of smacking skin plays crisply in his cochlea.
Joyce gasps. Mickey steps back, her mouth hanging open.
“I-I, sorry… I want these.”
Love, let her take them.
“I don’t want to—”
You’ve got no business talking to a dead gal like me anyway.
Warren swallows down sorrow as the demos are removed, and he loses Carolyn all over again. Joyce uses Warren’s card to pay the bill, and he listens to her whispered apology. He pretends not to hear the word dementia pinging like a note struck on a glockenspiel.
It’s quiet in the apartment. Warren removes the new hearing aids, drops them in his bedside drawer and shuts it. There’s only one sound worth hearing, and he’ll have to wait.